By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
BERLIN – MAY 1, 2021— The Working Group for Recognition: Against Genocide, for Understanding among Peoples (AGA) issued a call for a vigil on April 24 opposite the Turkish Embassy in Berlin. Among the 250 persons who joined were participants in a demonstration organized by an Armenian association, HayStab. As became clear from the posters, leaflets and statements, the focus was not only on the demand for Turkey to assume historical responsibility for the genocide, but also on Germany’s involvement, Azerbaijan’s military aggression against Nagorno-Kara- bakh and its continuing refusal to release prisoners.
The main message was: “Never Again!” The lesson must be learned from the genocide against the Armenians and other Christian minorities during and after World War I, against European Jews and Roma during World War II, and again later, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Myan- mar.
Dr. Gerayer Koutcharian, co-founder and long-term member of AGA, traced the long line of continuity from 1915 to the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
For Koutcharian, Turkey started the 44-day war in 2020, “apparently to conclude what it had begun in 1915, name- ly, to establish a Greater Turkish Empire, from the Adriatic to the Chinese border, in which all Turkic peoples are unit- ed under one flag.” The speaker expressed dismay at the Russian and Iranian non-response to such “pan-Turkish aggression,” not to mention that of Christian Europe and America, then and now.
Koutcharian went further, to assert that in point of fact,
whether passively or actively, the world had been party to the aggression: there were weapons from NATO or Israel, volunteer fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamist terrorists, political support through British Petroleum, as well as lawmakers in the German and European parlia- ments and the press. From the 1915 genocide to the pres- ent, he went on, most of “our historic homeland — West Armenia — has been destroyed,” and few people know where it — renamed East Anatolia —even is. “Now East Anatolia, that is, the Armenians living there, is slated for disappearance.”
Prof. Tessa Hofmann, AGA co-founder and genocide researcher, addressed the reasons for the vigil. April 24, a “day of mourning,” she explained, marks the 106th an- niversary of the beginning of the genocide. It started with elitocide, “the deliberate extinction of the intellectual and political leadership of the Armenians.” A month earlier, she recalled, 200 prominent Greeks had been arrested and a list prepared for the Armenian elite; “Scarcely any of the arrested survived the year 1915.”
Hofmann described how the proceedings in the capital that day were the blueprint for actions against members of the Armenian intelligentsia throughout the Ottoman Em- pire, who would be arrested, tortured, driven out and mur- dered. The rest of the population then followed, sent on death marches to destinations in Mesopotamia, “where the survivors would be thrust into concentration camps, and starved or died of epidemic diseases.”
“In only 19 months,” she reported,” 1.5 million of a total 2.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire died,” specifying that these figures come from an estimate reck- oned by the German Embassy in Constantinople.
Nor was the criminal enterprise of the Young Turks lim- ited to the Armenians, she added; Greeks as well as Assyrians (Aramaer) were targeted and, following the war, the Kemalist regime in its so-called liberation struggle “continued the massacres and deportations of its Young Turk predecessors against Ottoman Christians, including a second elitocide against the Greeks in the Pontus region.” Then, with the Lausanne Treaty, the Turkification of Tur- key proceeded.
In sum, between 1912 and 1922, she said, “about three million people died, merely because they belonged to Christian populations in Ottoman territory.”
In the morning of April 24, Armenian Ambassador Ashot Sambatyan took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at a khachkar near the Catholic Saint Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin-Mitte. In Frankfurt, the Society of Genocide Op- ponents (VV) organized a vigil, in Wiesbaden the Mesopo- tamian Assyrian Society held a commemorative event, and similar gatherings took place in Bremen and Jena.
The Personal Dimension of Trauma
On Sunday, April 25, an ecumenical commemoration took place at the Evangelical Luisenkirchhof in Berlin-Charlottenburg. The cemetery is the site of the Altars of Remembrance, dedicated to the memory of the Arme- nians, Pontic Greeks and Aramaeans who perished in the genocide. The Promotional Society for the Ecumenical Monuments for Genocide Victims of the Ottoman Em- pire (FÖGG), which erected the altars, and the Armenian Church and Culture Community in Berlin hosted the event. Smbatyan and counsellor Setrak Davityan represented the Armenian embassy and Archbishop Yeghishe Avetisyan offered requiem prayers. Attending the ceremony were about a hundred Berliners, among them members of the Armenian, Greek and Syrian-Orthodox communities.
Ani Serobjan, a member of AGA and doctoral candidate at the Humboldt University, in her address, explained the meaning of the Armenian word “aghet” as describing “the traumatic experience of the survivors, an experience of de- struction suffering, helplessness and loss. Hunger march- es, nocturnal raids, murder, forced labor, rape and years of wandering left people with incredibly deep wounds.”
Public attention to the genocide in the immediately aftermath was lacking in Germany due to wartime press censorship, she said. The importance of remembering, she stressed, lies in the need and power to prevent repeating such atrocities. Serobjan reiterated the significance of Ra- phael Lemkin’s work to conceptualize “genocide” and its subsequent codification as a crime against humanity in the 1948 United Nations convention.
So long as 1915 is denied, the more the need for active remembering, and what Adorno called coming to terms with the past. “That means,” Serobjan said, “the motives and mechanisms that led to genocide must be processed, worked through and made conscious.”
A particularly relevant point in her presentation was that it does not suffice to remember the genocide once a year. Rather “in cultural and political education, it has to be dealt with as a fundamental theme.” In German schools, however, the fact of the Ottoman genocide is virtually ig- nored, due to fear of the response on the part of parents with Turkish roots.
A related problem in Germany exists in the justice sys- tem. “How can it be allowed,” she asked, “that perpetrators of organized mass murder are present in numerous public places and even honored as folk heroes, as patriotic mar- tyrs?” Here she was referring to the scandalous fact that Mehmet Cemal Azmi Bey, who was responsible for de- portations of Greeks, not only has a school in Trabzon-Ar- sin named after him, but his grave — memorial — lies in a cemetery in Berlin-Neukölln. “The hero worship of genocide planners, organizers and executors, who were convicted in their own country’s courts after the first world war, remains unchallenged here in current-day Berlin.” Even the person most responsible for the genocide, Meh- met Talaat, a cult figure in Turkey, has devotees who honor him annually in Berlin.
The Spiritual Dimension
The final speaker was Paul Roth, a deacon and social education worker who is active in an ecumenical initia- tive, “Armenienhilfe” (Armenian Aid). Roth began by commemorating the thousands of dead in Nagorno-Kara- bakh, a war that is “at least indirectly” a consequence of the genocide, and Stalin’s “fateful decision” to annex the Armenian-populated region to Azerbaijan.
Roth introduced himself as someone born “long after the end of World War II and engaged for the last 40 years con- tinuously with studying Nazism, the Shoah and all forms of anti-Semitism.” Although he bears no personal guilt for the crimes of German Nazism, he feels “a great responsibility” to come to terms with these past crimes, in the interest of preserving democracy and human rights.
Through his curiosity about Armenia and its history, he began working with Armenienhilfe, which provides spon- sors for Armenian children with only one parent. Since 2015, he has traveled to Yerevan yearly, and visited Tsit- sernakaberd. If
The German Empire was Ottoman Turkey’s wartime ally and did everything to preserve the alliance, even if that meant the demise of the Armenians, as then-Impe- rial Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had put it. Since the Germans knew and tolerated the crimes against humani- ty perpetrated by the Young Turks, Roth considers them complicit. “Johannes Lepsius, Armin T. Wegner and Franz Werfel and a few others are our little fig leaf,” he said, “behind which however we cannot hide. And unfortunate- ly,” he continued, “even the official representatives of the German churches kept quiet at the time.” Their “miscon- strued patriotism” produced anger in him as a Protestant, and shame in relation to Armenians.
For Roth, it is not “why?” but, “what for? To what end?” Here, a bridge is built to the future, one looks forward even though the relevant event lies in the past. This condition of being in a “continuity of witnessing” spans generations, despite the fact that hardly any survivors are alive today. This “transgenerational remembrance” goes beyond, oc- curring in the present and binding past with the future.
To ensure that humanity learn from the past to shape the future, Roth said such gatherings as these in Berlin were “like mustard seeds, which must grow, to bear fruit. They are just as important as our prayers and exertions in our houses of worship and communities, our collaboration and engagement for a democratic, social and peaceful cooper- ation among persons, peoples and religions.”